Originally Published on Applaudience
The author acknowledges the unfortunate timing of this movie and this review in light of recent events in Las Vegas, NV. It is presented as-is without the intent to offend.
In the realm of action films and spy thrillers, American Assassin takes a page out of the Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher play-books by eschewing the tropes of a suave James Bond, the tech-heavy Mission Impossible, and stunt-laden xXx (Xander Cage) franchises.
Avoiding the glitz, gadgetry and implausible CGI-fueled stunt set pieces of the previously mentioned franchises, American Assassin manages to deliver a truly satisfying time at the movies.
Dylan O'Brien stars as Mitch Rapp. Mitch is training himself so he may avenge the murder of his fiancee — having lost her during a terrorist attack that interrupted their vacation in Ibiza. We find out later this was not the only loss in his life, but perhaps it’s one that breaks his grip on a normal existence and pushes his psyche into the realm of the psychotic.
Some may consider the following set-up creeping into spoiler territory but, nothing I mention isn’t already in the movie trailer.
In the aftermath of the Ibiza incident, we are treated to an unconventionally music-free montage in which Mitch works through a routine that includes MMA training, target practice, knife throwing and the study of his enemy’s language, ideology, and tactics. His obsession leads him to bait the terrorists online in an attempt to infiltrate the cell.
Mitch’s actions grab the attention of Irene Kennedy, Deputy Director of the CIA, played by Sanaa Lathan. Kennedy has been watching Mitch for a while and believes she can help Mitch with his “agenda” — since it is also the intelligence community’s agenda. That is if she can reign in his maverick tendencies.
Kenndey hopes to turn Mitch over to a secret organization code-named Orion. It’s a black ops unit that works autonomously, one that “kills people who need to be killed.” Orion is also one of “those” secret organizations. Where taking oneself out of the equation is preferable to capture since the agency will disavow any relationship to the operative.
Orion is run by Stan Hurley, an ex-Navy SEAL, played with delicious fervor by Michael Keaton.
Kennedy believes Mitch will benefit from the training at Orion, while Hurley thinks he’s just been handed a “section-8 soldier with a psychotic desire to kill ALL the terrorists” and not just those responsible for his fiancee’s death. The deal is sealed when Kennedy remarks, “drop anyone of your SEAL team recruits into an urban area and the enemy can smell boot-camp coming off of them from a mile away.”
“Drop anyone of your SEAL team recruits into an urban area and the enemy can smell boot-camp coming off of them from a mile away.”
What you see in the trailer happens in the first fifth of the movie before it briskly moves to the real stakes of the story. Can Hurley (Michael Keaton) reign in the vengeful Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) and teach him what he needs to know so he can be of use in the field. This is especially true when it’s discovered that missing plutonium and a disgruntled Hurley protogé, codenamed Ghost, may pose a more significant threat to global stability than run of the mill terrorists.
So begins the tale of Mitch Rapp, American Assassin.
TONE + SCREENPLAY
The screenplay is credited to a team of four. Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick of televisions Thirtysomething have long graduated to big screen thrillers such as The Siege and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. They are joined by Michael Cuesta, perhaps best known for his work on Showtime's Homeland and Michael Finch of The November Man and The Interrogation fame.
Their script highlights real-life conflicts, terrorist groups and political events that cloaks American Assassin in a veil of believability. Gone are the slick visuals and the suave demeanor of the Bond franchise. Gone are the high-tech toys of the Mission Impossible franchise. In their place are smartphones limited to today’s technology, the art of people watching and intelligence gathering.
That’s not to say the movie is dry and plodding like the adaptions of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. On the contrary, American Assassin may stop for exposition and needed character building, but it moves at a swift clip even though it clocks in at 112 minutes.
There is intense dedication by the writers, actors, and director on playing it straight. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single joke or any levity within American Assassin, yet the movie is brisk, entertaining and action-packed. Catchphrases are spoken matter of factly and mostly happen when too much testosterone is in the same room.
The actors are also given enough backstory so that we begin to connect to their characters. The audience experiences real feelings when characters meet their fates.
The actors have apparently been through boot camp or had enough tactical coaching to allow them to emulate the cadence of trained soldiers. In American Assassin it comes off like second nature. This makes the production feel more authentic.
The assassins hit their targets on the first or second time. After all, as killers isn’t that what they’re trained to do? Kudos also goes to the team that decided when people get shot; people should bleed out and lose consciousness. The Hollywood trope off allowing individuals who are wounded, to exist and function as if they weren’t injured or fighting the onset of sepsis is mostly avoided.
Standout performances are turned in by the four characters most often on the screen.
Dylan O'Brien playing Mitch Rapp has come a long way from the Maze Runner and Teen Wolf television series. He fits the mold of the strong-silent action hero. What Mitch lacks in dialogue, O’Brien makes up for in behavior with faces that emote more than generic brooding. His character is a Hollywood archetype. An outsider who has no respect for authority. Mitch is TopGun’s Maverick without the false bravado. His superiors reluctantly indulge his instincts and dedication when his actions yield results.
Shiva Negar plays Annika, the female agent sent into the field with Mitch. She's given much to do for a supporting character. As an agent, she’s fully capable of handling herself, and Shiva plays her as anything but a damsel in distress.
Taylor Kitsch is solid as Ghost, a rogue operative trained by Michael Keaton's character Hurley. Kitsch proves why he’s the right actor to cast by imbuing Ghost with the flipside of the Mitch Rapp character. His persona also fits the Maverick moniker though we learn that his rage has more to do with what happened in the field. Maybe Stan Hurley did his job too well.
Michael Keaton steals the show as Stan Hurley, an ex-Navy SEAL who now trains agents for the CIA. Keaton also serves as a reluctant mentor and a nascent father figure to Mitch. Keaton is making the most of the demand for his services since the best actor nomination for Birdman at the Oscars, and the win at the Golden Globes. Keaton inhabits his character and makes the most convoluted dialogue believable.
DIRECTION + ACTION
Besides being credited with the screenplay, Michael Cuesta also directed the movie, and that might explain why he zigs where others might have zagged. This brings a refreshing take on spy-thrillers. Sure, Cuesta doesn’t entirely escape all the clichés and tropes of the genre, but enough is new so that one can exclaim, “Well I’m not sure I’ve seen that before.”
Cuesta adds subtle touches — like the momentary close-up on Michael Keaton’s character Stan Hurley. Before he stands up in the CIA Headquarter waiting area, we see a close-up of his footwear. We get a flash of white athletic sock even though he’s dressed in a suit. This hints at the fact that Hurley doesn’t come in from the field very often. At least not often enough to have dress socks, much less a suit ready at a moment’s notice. He’s a man enforcing the American agenda in the field, not from behind a desk.
It’s these details that make the movie.
Then there’s the action. American Assassin has its share of action set-pieces. Each set piece informs us and moves the plot forward instead of being just the display of raw violence.
Critical scenes are not telescoped for suspense. Rather, they are doled out like staccato gunfire. When people are shot it often catches the audience off guard. Gunfights are efficient and horrific. The violence is brutal and savage. “Who grabs a blade?” The camera work is exemplary making you feel like you’re right in the middle of the fight. Yet Cuesta, his director of photography, and his editor know when it’s time to pull back so you can follow the action.
In reality, we may be going to hell in a hand basket, but in the movies, we are bringing it to the enemy combatants — rules of engagement be damned
You’ll feel a rush of visceral joy, followed by guilt, when watching Mitch & Co. dispatching terrorists and different villains. They do so with knives, guns, fists, feet and whatever happens to be lying nearby. Improvisation is encouraged.
It’s the intended catharsis of the narrative. In reality, we may be going to hell in a hand-basket, but in the movies, we are bringing it to the enemy combatants — rules of engagement be damned.
Older actors were initially considered for the part of Mitch Rapp. But with 16 books in the NY Times bestselling series by Vince Flynn — it appears Dylan O’Brien’s age helped rather than hindered his chances of starring in what could be the next great spy-thriller franchise.
American Assassin, Rated PG-13, TRT: 112 minutes